There’s a little wiggling at the bottom right corner of the screen, and a digitized paperclip begins to demean my presentation.
His name is Clippit, and he wants me to spice up my slides. Clippit says I’ll get a better response if I add a funky color scheme and some animations.
But it’s 4 a.m. and I need to give the presentation in five hours. Should I worry about relevant content or sleek transitions?
One upon a time, there was no such thing as Microsoft PowerPoint and animated slide transitions hadn’t been dreamed of. It’s so prevalent today that studies estimate 95 percent of presentations worldwide are produced using PowerPoint. That’s millions and millions of them every month.
Lot’s of University professors use PowerPoint slides in class, and even NASA engineers have employed it to make lessons on space shuttle repair more palatable. But after the Space Shuttle Columbia and its PowerPoint-trained crew were incinerated as they attempted to reenter the atmosphere in February 2003, government officials singled out the Microsoft software as a possible cause of the disaster.
“PowerPoint Makes You Dumb,” was the headline of a New York Times story the year after the crash. Years later, University professors can’t seem to resist using it to keep their Friday morning classes lively and colorful. So is it that much easier to Economics 101 than it is to teach NASA officials how to repair a space shuttle, or is PowerPoint making University students dumber too?
A 2006 nationwide survey of faculty and students by the Center for Research on Learning Technology found that two-thirds of professors use PowerPoint several times per month, and many use it every day.
The conventional wisdom is that the prevalence of PowerPoint is a good thing. Using multiple mediums to communicate an idea is intuitively more effective than only lecturing.
“A general principle of learning is that people tend to connect better to ideas when you link to them in multiple ways,” said Barry Fishman, an associate professor at the School of Education, who also researches learning technologies.
Watching videos of anti-Vietnam protests, for example, is far more moving than reading about them.
Although he maintains it’s a useful learning tool, Fishman warned it can be misused. Some professors allow students to rely too heavily on slide presentations instead of the lecture; other professors are just boring.
“Constantly popping off bullet points to just go with what you’re saying, I think that’s counterproductive,” RC Prof. Tom O’Donnel said.
O’Donnell compared a PowerPoint presentation to a sheet of notes used in making a speech, guiding the presenter through key points and ensuring none are forgotten. In his natural science classes, slideshows are mainly used to show graphs or diagrams, with other text simply serving as a guide to keep his lectures focused.
Even though PowerPoint lectures have the potential to be dull or scattered, Fishman cautioned that the blame can’t rest solely on the computer.
“It’s the job of a teacher to be compelling enough that people need to listen to them,” he said.
The bane of bullet points
With every great tool, naysayers find fault. PowerPoint’s no different. It’s the butt of countless jokes and the topic of many books on style and public speaking.
These qualms are all neatly surmised in an online PowerPoint presentation outlining the Gettysburg Address. As you click through the slides, you can imagine Abraham Lincoln fumbling with a projector and laptop before presenting his famous Civil War oration using graphs and bullet points. Awkward slides use graphs to show the passing of four score and seven years while lists include objectives like “Men are equal.”
Complex ideas can’t be presented in bulleted chunks of information, let alone be presented eloquently. Many presentations, lectures or speeches made with PowerPoint take on the tone of a corporate pitch.
One of the foremost critiques of PowerPoint was written by Edward Tufte, a scholar of the presentation of information. Tufte wrote a book called “The Cognitive Style of PowerPoint,” which argues against the use of PowerPoint and similar programs.
Tufte claims PowerPoint slides “weaken verbal and spatial reasoning” and over complicate stories with hierarchical lists. He says that using bullet points and lists breaks up ideas and destroys complex arguments. And with an average of just 40 words per slide, PowerPoint presentations can consist of hundreds of slides that bore the audience.
One of his case studies involves the Columbia disaster. As the space shuttle circled the earth, NASA engineers noticed that a piece of foam debris had impacted the shuttle’s underside during liftoff.
As is standard practice, engineers prepared a series of PowerPoint slides to explain what had happened and potential outcomes to top NASA officials. But the slides weren’t effective, Tufte wrote.
Using bullet points and the short, truncated sentences familiar to PowerPoint users meant simple ideas were condensed into technical jargon that even NASA execs couldn’t understand.
One bullet point simply read, “Volume of ramp is 1920cu in.” A longer sentence would have explained things better, but then, it wouldn’t have fit on one line.
More important, Tufte argues that the hierarchical setup of bullet points hid important details from view. Larger bullets gave overviews of problems, while only the smaller, indented ones expressed dangers and doubts. And people viewing slideshows generally assume that smaller, lower-level bullet points are less important.
“Information was lost as it traveled up the hierarchy,” said a 2005 NASA report about the Columbia disaster. “It is easy to understand how a senior manager might read this PowerPoint slide and not realize that it addresses a life-threatening situation.”
The slideshow crutch
When Al Gore made the rounds with his PowerPoint presentation he called “An Inconvenient Truth,” was eventually made into a blockbuster PowerPoint movie, he converted a lot of people to his cause. Somehow even watching the famously dour Al Gore clicking through slides is a lot more interesting than watching a professor use the same technology.
A big risk associated with PowerPoint use is it becomes a replacement for thinking and explaining ideas to others. Instead of being the shining result of years of reflection and stewing, as Gore’s presentation was, professors’ presentations can be droll and confusing.
That’s most obvious when presenters load up slides with paragraph upon paragraph of information and then read them to the audience.
“That’s a no-no,” Fishman said. “Use it as a complement to what you’re saying.”
Fishman says it’s not so much that PowerPoint creates boring lectures but that boring lecturers use it. In September 2003 in Wired magazine, Tufte arguing that presentations given with PowerPoint are more sales pitches than information sessions. He complained that slideshows often have more visual content than informational content.
“If your words or images are not on point, making them dance in color won’t make them relevant,” he wrote. “Audience boredom is usually a content failure, not a decoration failure.”
As much as PowerPoint is a crutch for lazy instructors, it can also be a crutch for lazy students. Though somesay PowerPoint is an invaluable tool for jogging memories of the lecture, with lecture slides often available online, some students rely on PowerPoint presentations more than the actual class. Sleep through lecture? Download the slides, and the entire lesson is before you in PDF form. And with some professors using the new technology to make lecture slides available before classes, paying attention during class has become outdated.
This is hardly a new dilemma. Microsoft first released PowerPoint in 1987, albeit only in black and white, and this summer marked two decades of people making electronic slideshows. During that time, scores of other similar programs have popped up, including Apple’s popular Keynote. Making slick-looking presentations has never been easier
Even before personal computers, slideshows existed in boardrooms in a low-tech version. Graphic designers sketched graphs, data and sentences onto 35mm slides that were displayed using mechanical slide viewers that went “cuh-click” as they advanced the images.
There are limits to technology, though. O’Donnell said he wishes the old-fashioned chalkboards were more prevalent around campus. In many classrooms, they’ve been covered or removed to make space for projector screens.
Sometimes, O’Donnell takes a portable chalkboard to lectures with him, alongside his PowerPoint slides.
The question remains, is PowerPoint a bad thing?
“That’s an unanswerable question,” Fishman said. “Technology isn’t good or bad – it depends on how people use it.”
One thing’s for certain. Slideshows aren’t going away. Dull lecturers will continue to read paragraphs off slides, students will use PowerPoint files in lieu of listening to lectures, and important details might just get lost to indented bullets, but at least it will be fun to watch.